Regaining our Fighting Spirit: A Letter to Bill

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Bernard Weisberger is a historian who has been by turns a university professor, an editor of American Heritage and a collaborator on several of Bill’s documentaries.

Dear Bill,

I am always grateful for the stimulating voices of your guests, and enjoyed Richard Wolff as much on this second appearance as I did on his first. This time, he refreshed my professional recall of a historical episode that needs to be more widely known, and also touched a personal chord that I want to share with you.

Bernard Weisberger

As to the first, Wolff proposes as a possible alternative to the current aggressive form of capitalism that preaches individual competition but practices relentless mergers and acquisitions, an economy founded on cooperation for the common good. He is on solid historical ground As we both know from our excursions into the history of progressivism, the 1880s and nineties saw some very serious discussions of what such an economy might look like. One popular volume by Laurence Gronlund outlined a “Cooperative Commonwealth” that inspired significant numbers of organized followers. Other widely advocated alternatives to the system that produced the grinding inequalities of the first Gilded Age included “Nationalists” kindled by Edward Bellamy’s novel of a collectivist paradise, Looking Backward. Different forms of socialism — Christian, Utopian, and offshoots of Marxism — were embraced by respectable public figures. Taken together, they did not win many votes, but the books and newspapers that they filled with their arguments created a voice that was heard in legislative chambers and opened paths to democratic reform. At the very least they partly removed the mantle of sanctity that the horrified wealthy wove and still weave around capitalism is the greatest of all possible ways of organizing an economy. Who’s doing that work of de-mythologizing now?

The final assembly line of this Plymouth plant in Detroit, seen on Aug. 13, 1954, is so vast that a visitor can walk about a half a mile without stepping outdoors. A division of Chrysler Corp., the Plymouth plant has twin assembly lines and is built entirely on one level covering 28 acres of floor space. It is capable of producing more automobiles in one day than any other plant in the world. (AP Photo/Chrysler Corporation)

The final assembly line of Chrysler's Plymouth plant in Detroit, seen on Aug. 13, 1954. (AP Photo/Chrysler Corporation)

Wolff also mentioned the critical need for strong unions to sustain any such transition to “capitalism with a human face,” and he sees a job for the educational system in preparing future union leaders to assume responsible and informed leadership roles. That was what rang my bell.

From 1954 to 1959 I lived in Detroit as a junior professor at Wayne State University. At the time Michigan politics were fairly well dominated by the Democratic party which, in its turn, was heavily beholden to a healthy and hefty United Auto Workers, with real power to strike. As a result the managements of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were amenable to compromise, and were met part way by the union’s leader, Walter Reuther, a one-time Socialist who was interested not merely in benefits for his members but in economic policy changes that would work to the benefit of society as a whole.

Philip Murray, left, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), confers with Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, as the CIO National Convention opens in Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 20, 1950. (AP Photo)

Philip Murray, left, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), confers with Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers, as the CIO National Convention opens in Chicago, Illinois, Nov. 20, 1950. (AP Photo)

So when the time to cut the profit melon arrived, economists and statisticians from company and union alike met for informed bargaining. And, interestingly enough, they were often trained in the economics departments or business schools of the same universities.

How did I know this? Because I lived in a new suburb for middle-income home owners and I had friends on both sides.

For many conservatives the idea of workers having input on decisions regarding what employers could afford to pay them was as horrifying as putting a chimpanzee at the controls of a complicated and delicate machine. Not so at all. The union’s representatives at the table were as familiar with classroom-taught economics as were their management counterparts; sometimes neighbors and friends. The only important difference was in whom they believed themselves to be working for — shareholders or employees. Each group realized that these constituencies were in some sense dependent on each other. That did not produce love-ins, but healthy compromise much of the time because they were not unequal in power. Imagine anything like that happening if unions finally disappear as so many right-wing cheerleaders devoutly wish.

It was a good time for young and liberal folk, and for the nation, too — even with the overshadowing influences of the Cold War. I’d like it back in some form, but that won’t happen without a revival of the anger and readiness for political combat that not only inspired the first surge of Progressivism in the early 1900s and its fiery revival in the Great Depression. I’m still hoping to see some kind of renewal of that fighting spirit, even against mighty odds today.

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